Thursday, September 06, 2007

Forgotten Culture: Use Your Illusion

“Nobody got fucked by the age of irony like Axl Rose.” -Chuck Klosterman

I still remember the day that Use Your Illusion I and II came out. Metal fans, who back then constituted close to a majority of the record-buying public, had been whipped into a frenzy. There we were, in the age of the blockbuster album (Metallica, Garth Brooks, MC Hammer, Mariah Carey, etc.), and our boys were about to blow the lid off the whole thing by doubling the pot. These albums weren’t just gonna change what we listened to. They were gonna change how we listened to, thought about, and drew identity from rock music.

My mom had instituted a system of merit points that allowed my brothers and me to purchase albums with parental advisory stickers only after doing enough good deeds (helping someone without being asked, showing character, etc.) to amass fifty merit points. But UYI day was different. My older brother John and I were so excited about these albums that Mom went out and bought the tapes for us without making us give up any merit points. It was as if she knew the importance of this event, knew that it was above merit points or anything else. Or maybe she just knew that we would end up hearing them anyway because all of our friends were going to have them. At any rate, she gave UYI I to John and UYI II to me. It was, as I recall, one of the happiest moments of my adolescence.

Use Your Illusion II monopolized my ears for the better part of a year. I listened to it at least once a day for six months, memorizing every lick, every drum fill, every vocal fluctuation. I knew it from start to finish. John and I copied each other’s tapes of the albums, so I got to listen to the first one quite a bit too, but it was never the same for me. I would listen to "Don’t Cry," "November Rain," and "Dead Horse," but the rest of it wore on my nerves. Mainly because it just wasn’t Use Your Illusion II.

Ask anyone who ever had a passing interest in G N’R and they will most likely tell you that Appetite For Destruction is, in retrospect, the only G N’R album that matters. It’s certainly the only one that people still listen to today. Hell, you never even hear the singles off of Use Your Illusion on the radio any more (except on rainy days in November). Appetite rocks harder than the others and, at a lean 54 minutes, doesn’t ever get bogged down with fluff. In fact there isn’t a weak song on the entire album (which is more than I can say for Nirvana's Nevermind, by the way, even though Nevermind is always at the top of self-important rock-crit lists of the most important albums of all time).

But saying you like Appetite is like saying you like Picasso or Van Gogh. Who doesn’t? It’s obvious why people like it. It fucking rocks. It’s just one great blues riff after another, all played with the energy of a young band looking to make a statement. Ask anyone why they like it, and they will all tell you the same thing.

On the other hand, ask a bunch of people why they like Jackson Pollock. Half of them don’t, half of the rest don’t know why they do, and everyone else will have wildly varying reasons for liking those little splatters of paint. It’s the same way with Use Your Illusion. There aren’t many of us left who still think about those albums, but we think about them a lot and can tell you exactly why we do. I’m always more attracted to art like this, art that doesn’t immediately present its greatness to me. I like it when I have to dig.

I might not go so far as to say that the Use Your Illusion albums are great art. In fact, I would categorically deny that statement. But I find myself fascinated by them. What the hell were they thinking making some of this music? It’s weird, meandering, and downright cacophonous at points. Just go back and listen to “My World” and you’ll see what I mean.

But I think that the albums get to the heart of what G N’ R was about as a band. More than any other band of their era (except maybe Metallica), they had designs on something bigger than rock music. Motley Crue, Poison, Whitesnake: they just wanted to be rich, famous, and oversexed. G N’ R thought that they could take rock music into a new era, an era where it would be recognized as the leading art form of the day and be analyzed not just by music critics but by important cultural scholars. They really, truly believed that rock could change the world.

It’s a nice thought, but that don’t necessarily make it so. The albums were bloated messes, revealing schizophrenia rather than any grand design. There were moments of invigorating musicianship, but there were also too many WTF moments to count. There was only so long that they could go on before they self-destructed. But maybe that’s why we liked them. They kept things crazy, and we were all just waiting for the fireworks.

I’ve often thought about how I would resequence the albums into one leaner, more coherent album. What I’ve come to is this:

1. Don’t Damn Me
As close to a mission statement as they got.
2. Yesterdays
Start out lookin’ forward.
3. Don’t Cry (Original)
Ballads are the backbone of metal.
4. Dead Horse
Definitely better not as a closer.
5. Get in the Ring
A train wreck, but too important to their mythology to discard.
6. Breakdown
Izzy blues peppered throughout make for a palatable album.
7. November Rain
The centerpiece, and still the best song any of them will ever write.
8. Right Next Door To Hell
Start the second half off with a bang.
9. You Could Be Mine
It got way overplayed, but it’s still pretty damn good.
10. Pretty Tied Up
If only for the line, “The pearls of rock n’ roll decadence!”
11. Locomotive
Chugging guitars propel this one forward, a bit long though.
12. Back Off Bitch
A little misogyny goes a long way.
13. Estranged
A mangled masterpiece that never was.
14. Dust N’ Bones
Back to Izzy. Maybe he was the real genius..

So that’s my take on what could have saved G N’ R from themselves. But looking at it, I’m not sure I would have wanted them to make that album. There’s something about those two bloated albums that gives me more insight into rock music than Led Zeppelin’s entire catalogue. Most metal albums of that era gave us a rather clichéd look at the “tortured young male psyche.” Use Your Illusion gave us a real glimpse into the mind of a truly disturbed man.

It’s been said by many men smarter than I that we always learn more from our failures than our successes. I’ve found that to be very true in my life, and I’ve also found it to be true that “without the sour, the sweet ain’t as sweet.” A single volume of Use Your Illusion just wouldn’t cut it. We need it all, the great and the weird, the wonderful and the wince-inducing. It’s just not G N’ R without both.

“Use Your Illusion exemplifies what it means to get so caught up in the quest for pop totality that there is no way back. There has always been a fundamental inferiority complex to our championing the importance of pop music, a sense that it is a bastard art form: too crude and too pretentious at the same time. Use Your Illusion was lame crap by definition in the subculture that I grew up with as a college radio DJ and post-punk fan. Yet by 1991, as my taste group was about to briefly take over rock, I heard in Use Your Illusion something more unsettled, harder to grasp, than anything in Nevermind. And now, with ‘alternative’ as dated a term as hair metal, Use Your Illusion remains emblematic of the baroque fancies that musical obsession can inspire.” -Eric Weisbard


Anonymous Brad said...

That's really weird. I just listened to them for the first time in years a couple weeks ago. And "Estranged" is still brain-fryingly awesome. Such things never change.

10:37 PM  

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